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Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton express mutual admiration as Champions Cup final countdown continues

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Johnny Sexton, the Leinster captain, looks on during the Leinster Rugby press conference held at Stade Velodrome in Marseille. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Johnny Sexton, the Leinster captain, looks on during the Leinster Rugby press conference held at Stade Velodrome in Marseille. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Johnny Sexton, the Leinster captain, looks on during the Leinster Rugby press conference held at Stade Velodrome in Marseille. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Ronan O'Gara sent Johnny Sexton a text earlier this week to see if his old mate was on for meeting up for a coffee in Marseille. Sexton politely declined.

The times didn’t allow, (I'm) very busy today,” Sexton smiled.

On the eve of the Heineken Champions Cup final, both men cut relaxed figures in their pre-match press conferences. O'Gara and Sexton have danced this dance before, but it doesn't make it any less special.

For Sexton, a chance to become the tournament's most decorated player (along with Cian Healy) with five titles beckons, while for O'Gara, a first medal as a head coach is at stake.

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Stade Rochelais coach Ronan O'Gara during a press conference at the Orange Velodrome, MarseillePhoto credit: David Davies/PA Wire.

Stade Rochelais coach Ronan O'Gara during a press conference at the Orange Velodrome, MarseillePhoto credit: David Davies/PA Wire.

Stade Rochelais coach Ronan O'Gara during a press conference at the Orange Velodrome, MarseillePhoto credit: David Davies/PA Wire.

Even after all this time, O'Gara is still full of admiration for his former foe.

“I don’t have an hour, genuinely, to explain what he’s good at,” O'Gara said at the Stade Velodrome this afternoon.

“I think when you come out of your playing days, you see the game a little bit differently, you see the importance of relationships, you see the importance of enjoying the journey - a lot of people I enjoyed it with aren’t around anymore, they passed away unfortunately - so you’ve got to be reminded we’re in a great place, you’ve got to be able to enjoy tomorrow.

“I’ve experienced every emotion with Johnny and I respect him a lot. I enjoy his mindset, and I enjoy how he goes about his business.

“I think he’s happier that his hotel wasn’t near mine because he wasn’t too keen on the coffee!

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“It is easier when you don’t have to… I can drink coke tomorrow or drink water, the boys have got to suffer on both teams and they’ve got to prepare mentally, and I’ve got to prepare mentally as the coach, that’s for certain, but he’s going to be 37 in July and that’s some achievement to be playing the way he is at the minute.

“We need to get stuck into him, that’s the biggest compliment I can give him because I think they play differently when he’s on the pitch.”

The mutual appreciation runs deep.

“Look, he's done a fantastic job with them,” Sexton said.

“Fair play to him, getting to three finals in-a-row, that's a great achievement with a team that historically wasn't a powerhouse in France but someone like Jono Gibbes needs to take huge credit for that as well, for the work that he's done over the last couple of years. We know him well obviously.

“So yeah, they're a team to be reckoned with and they obviously knocked us out last year, so that's all our focus.

“Myself and ROG, I don't even know how to think about that considering I'm a player and he's a coach.

“I thought the (Felipe) Contepomi clash would have been more interesting, to be honest. And I don't think they've been in touch!"

For all that he has achieved in his illustrious career, leading Leinster to Champions Cup glory is one of the few boxes that Sexton has left to tick. What would it mean to him then?

“Maybe a little bit more,” the Leinster captain admitted.

“I also answered these questions in Newcastle before Saracens as well. It would be very special. But it’s not something that I thought too much about, you obviously feel it inside but you always take responsibility, but yeah it would be special, to add to your name to the list of some great players who have played the game, and have captained Leinster to the Heineken Cup. So it would be very special.”

Cut from the same cloth, O'Gara is also trying to block out any sense of sentimentality ahead of tomorrow's mouth-watering final.

“I don’t think about those things until they are achieved,” the La Rochelle head coach added.

“You can’t be certain but you would hope it would happen at some stage, whether that’s tomorrow, next year or whenever. Keep going.

“I love it here, we have a great group, good boys that have bought into the vision, the dream of competing on both fronts. Its a privilege to coach them.

“We have had many downs and losing two finals is desperately disappointing but it took me six years as a player to win one. It’s a fantastic competition, I love it. I think we have the 23 to win it. We are up against a very classy team, we know that but we have enjoyed the journey.

“Greg (Alldritt) has said that the Top 14 is a marathon and the Champions Cup is a sprint and it’s on in a mythical stadium tomorrow. We’re involved and we’re very privileged to be the last two dancing tomorrow.

“We want to make the most of it. We didn’t show it in Lens but that’s okay, we showed it last year against Leinster in Deflandre. There will be 65,000 people here tomorrow and the game will take on a life of its own after the kick-off. Hopefully we’ll all strap in and watch a fantastic game.”

After which, Sexton and O'Gara will surely share something stronger than coffee.


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